show image

#FTW16: “5 lessons I learned from doing tech in Africa”

Jess Williamson is Global Program Director for Barclays Accelerator Powered by Techstars, which now runs fintech programmes across London, New York, Tel Aviv and Cape Town. She chaired a panel of African fintech entrepreneurs during London Fintech Week

For the past 12 months, I’ve lived a double life between the UK and Africa, embedded in the financial technology ecosystems on both hemispheres.

As an American who’s just spent ten years in Scotland and England, I was very aware of my newcomer status when it came to investing in fintech startups in emerging markets.

I was fully aware of some of my knowledge gaps; other biases and ignorance I would come to realise, and with a curious mind and an open heart I have felt incredibly welcomed and initiated into the fintech ecosystem.

Reflecting back on the past year, on relationships, observations and shared journeys with some amazing entrepreneurs and banking innovators, I’ve distilled five key takeaways from my personal adventures.

African Solutions for African Problems

I quickly realised there is little interest in importing systems from other parts of the world, as people seem to find it highly amusing to watch solutions from overseas startups or corporates fail when deployed in the real African environment.

Whether it’s the absence of physical addresses in many regions, low penetration of credit cards for ecommerce transactions, or trust issues around paying for an item before actually receiving it, the failures of imported approaches serve as great sources of comedy at conferences.

Whenever non-African companies are plagued by oversights on logistics, payments, cultural nuances, or other infrastructure, this only reinforces the spirit that solutions need to come from within.

Look beyond the diaspora entrepreneurs

Great entrepreneurs can be found anywhere. Many VC funds get criticised for finding the African entrepreneurs who are easiest to spot and easiest to relate to – those who have studied at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, or who have lived in the US or UK prior to founding companies overseas.

While these are certainly compelling entrepreneurs to invest in, having built out their networks and being able to ‘talk the talk’ in a familiar way, there are also many impressive entrepreneurs who are deeply rooted on the African continent.

Investors who build relationships with partners on the ground, who can recognise strong teams in a new context, and who are prepared to do due diligence beyond familiar alumni networks will be able to get in on a wider variety of opportunities.

“Marinate yourself”

Early on in my quest, an entrepreneur spoke to me very directly on a Google Hangout between the UK and Kenya: “Don’t sit in your ivory towers in London and Cape Town thinking you can learn about Africa. Marinate yourself in Ghana. Marinate yourself in Kenya.”

This advice wasn’t necessarily surprising as I knew I needed to invest time on the ground, but he stated it more eloquently. The word “marinate” stewed in my head as my travels unfolded.

The first time I landed in Ghana, I agreed a night out in Accra with someone I met at baggage claim, leading to an interesting debate between Ghanaians and Nigerians about IP protection and insights into childhood pop culture that had inspired their own entrepreneurial journeys (hint: Billionaire Boys Club).

On further stays, I wound up dancing front row in a gigantic church with a Ghanaian family, walked door-to-door shadowing a susu [financial intermediary] collecting people’s daily savings, and seeing the giant signs across multiple African countries advertising: “This Land is NOT for sale”.

Each of these experiences gave me a much deeper appreciation for the role that new financial technologies can have in facilitating church tithing and transparency, managing savings collections without disregarding those trusted relationships, and digitising land registries to reduce fraudulent sales.

I could have learned these concepts from a pitch deck, but ‘marinating myself’ in them gave me more powerful convictions. I am forever grateful to those who brought me under their wings.

This is Africa

This phrase is so common on the African continent, it has its own acronym, TIA. Its meaning slightly depends on the context, but to me it came to mean ‘suspend expectations and assumptions about how things should work, how long something should take, what straight-forward answers you should be able to get from government departments’.

This is Africa. Those with the patience, talent and knack for navigating uncertainty and obstacles can use that to their advantage, while others will wind up forever frustrated and caught off-guard.

Behind this saying I sensed a mix of humour, challenge and pride.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fintech

While many fintech entrepreneurs are solving problems faced in their former financial services careers, I couldn’t help but notice that the problems many African fintech entrepreneurs are solving are much more personal to their own daily life, or struggles of their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents or friends.

Yes, many of them have had careers in investment banking or other finance roles, but the problems they are tackling are not ones they discovered at work. It’s the family friend who couldn’t afford medical treatment, the aunt who couldn’t access her savings quickly enough in an emergency, the autistic brother who struggled to understand the concept of money, or the grandmother that passed away in the waiting room because the hospital only took cash payments.

I kept thinking it might be time to adapt Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Fintech, with basic money storage and ability to make payments toward the bottom, and investment banking algorithms perhaps nearer the top.

The evolution of these technologies will certainly be different and non-linear, with African infrastructure indeed leap-frogging that of Europe in many areas. But the distributed weight and priorities of innovation feels to be in different places in this imaginary pyramid.

Back in London now with many of our entrepreneurs from the Africa programme currently visiting the UK, my two lives have temporarily collided.

Many ask me which life is better, which companies are stronger – and when I see everyone together the differences quickly fade away.

The best entrepreneurs are highly adaptable, so drawing distinctions feels futile. They are all passionate, determined, crazy and wonderful problem-solvers, and no matter where I grew up, they all feel like extended family now.

I just keep waiting for my golden moment to explain away oddities with the magical line, “This is England”.